Preamble: This week I'd like to present Potato, a science-fiction short story on the subject of deprivation and coping, and what happens when sanity requires a paperweight.
(The entire story survives beneath the fold.)
by Cheeseburger Brown
On the five hundredth day of exile she knew she needed a plan. She said to herself, "Self, if we don't lay a path elsewhere now the only place we're headed is crazy town."
Self agreed. How could she not? Evidence was accumulating.
"You're right, Pistil. You make a good point. A project as a focus for our constructive attention. Rather than losing our mind. I like it all over."
She'd spent some months concerned only with survival, but had graduated in time to ploys designed to speed her rescue. Eventually the prospect of rescue dwindled so she turned to improving her lot. She refined her methods. She replaced her most ad hoc contrivances with replacements designed for the longer term. She submitted to her surroundings and settled in.
And now that she was settled she found herself possessed of a relaxing grip on sanity. She was sane enough to be concerned. She knew she needed momentum or she'd stall.
"What's the nature of the project?" she asked herself.
Herself shrugged. But she was being coy. Despite a stiff upper lip and telling herself she'd given up all hope of rescue, when she asked herself in her heart of hearts what could really engage her spirit again it was that very idea: rescue, a return home, and taking up a normal life.
The world wouldn't give it to her. Could she give it to herself?
Pistil tore into the wreckage of the ship. She'd been through it a hundred thousand times before but on altogether different missions. Missions that had made her blind to what she sought now.
People who don't want to die don't care about luxury items like simulation beads. But sometimes people who want to live do.
It took her six to weeks to gather enough sim beads to generate a decent field, plus a handful of projectors for data out and a bunch of panopticoids for data in. She tested the system with test patterns: colour bars and calibration tones and haptic clenches punctuating her experience in a steady metronomic march. She tested hot and she tested cold. One night when she was feeling brave she tested pain.
"Oh my God!"
Five hundred and sixty four days on a potato-shaped asteroid the size of a lake. Five hundred and sixty four days sheltering and shivering and signalling from the twisted metal detritus that had once been an expensively-equipped intrastellar yawl. Five hundred days to admit to herself they were never coming for her, and sixty four days to build a consolation prize.
Next came the programme. For this she would take her time. Pistil would invest herself prudently and patiently, designing and deciding and architecting and option-weaving until her paradise was perfect. A nest for her psyche for ever.
This consumed another one hundred and five of her days.
Nineteen days of testing. She simulated the simulation at six thousand times speed and watched it play out different ways. She tweaked some parameters and recompiled the narrative from a new random seed. She didn't want to spoil things for herself, after all. While she'd built rails for the major trends the minutiae had to be surprising and occasionally mean or none of it would feel genuine.
She held off inserting herself into the sim for one and half ovulation cycles, or forty-three days.
Thereafter she metered herself strictly, spending eight hours each day in the simulation, eight hours each day in reality, and eight hours blissfully unconscious under the auspices of a small blue hexagon-shaped pill.
Her dreariest hours in the real world were lightened by yearning. She hummed to herself as she scraped ripe layers off the fungus gardens and laid down grease cakes for cheese-making. She whistled while she turned the crank on the urine cycler. Overhead the stars wheeled sickeningly.
In the simulation she had a cube capturing a moment while she posed with the search and rescue crew a day after they'd found her. It had been such a deep day. It was a day you carried forever. Her simulated extrusion of herself would often stop by the cube to trail a finger along its top edge, a silent moment of pause and thanks.
The crew she'd simulated weren't muscled heroes. They had halitosis and salty sweat stains on their shirts. They hadn't bothered to shave. But they were human beings. Novel, individual, other than self human beings. And so they were very beautiful because of that. And immeasurably precious to Pistil.
In time she married the man who waited for her while she coasted across the star system. In time children came, and the pain worked just as advertised. Nielsen held her hand. The snot-covered infant was gorgeous. Streaked with blood, seeking the breast. Irreplaceable.
The timer buzzed. She switched modes. She never varied from the schedule. She knew if she were to retain her sanity it would only be because she refused to let herself drown within the fantasy. Return trips to reality were essential. Her shifts in reality passed much like her shifts of sleep: automatic, restorative, and without significant impact on memory. Its self-same nature made it as invisible as the taste of water.
In quiet moments between conducting the children to school and the next conference with the Terran foundation she volunteered to support she would remember how things used to be, and how her heart had leapt the day the rescue ship's hails had first squelched through her jury-rigged projector back on that spinning potato she had been forced to call home.
"Ahoy, ahoy! Do you copy? This is Lucky Leprechaun out of Ganymede, broadcasting to source of rescue beacon. We see your rock. Are you still on it?"
Pistil's head snapped up. She blinked, a mulch of fungal foundation oozing in clumps from her fingers.
The projector crackled and popped. "Ahoy, ahoy! Is there anybody out there?"
She finished what she was doing with an odd, numb feeling. Her hands were clumsy. She started washing the dishes and singing a lullaby to herself before herself shouted loud enough to snap her out of it. Finally she broke from routine and lurched over to the projector, snapping the test toggle up and down desperately until she caught a good circuit and the Heisenberg lamp lit up.
"Mayday!" she cried. "Roger Lucky Leprechaun I can hear you. I'm marooned seven hundred and eleven days. My name is Pistil Carryover. Mayday, please -- oh God, mayday. Come back?"
Grumbling static. Electric nerves. A wave of uncomfortable heat and nausea. Pistil squinched her eyes closed until she saw shapes within shapes.
"Roger, Miss Crusoe. Today's the first day of the rest of your life."
Which it was. Which was weird. Because it already had been.
But her first rescue ship had been called Srinivasa Ramanujan instead of Lucky Leprechaun and its hull had been a polished curve of grey ceramic and gold-plated components instead of being garishly green and pitted by space crap. Never the less was her pleasure at being received by the bad breath and perspiration perfume and varied personalities of actually real new human beings.
They were all really nice to her when she came aboard. Gentle, even. They guessed that whatever she'd lived through in order to keep living had been no small ordeal. There was no prejudice, either. Nobody cared that she was Martian. "We're all just apes in a can," said the captain with a grin that was dentistry's woe. But it was a very warm grin.
Pistil's simulations hadn't included having to spend additional months in orbit around her homeworld while diplomats had tea and discussed at leisure the issue of coming to an amicable arrangement with respect to the transfer of one Pistil Carryover from a Terro-Jovian ship to the jurisdiction of Imperial Mars without wrecking a house of cards made of interplanetary non-aggression treaties and decades of severe frowning.
But eventually it happened. They figured it out. And little Lucky Leprechaun was subsumed within the yawning maw of a blood-red royal naval corvette. Her rescuers laced their hands behind their heads as Pistil was led away. No shots were fired. Lucky Leprechaun disembarked without incident and was escorted downwell by a patrol of crimson skiffs.
Nielsen really had waited for her. He was gentle, too. He let her take her time.
Physiotherapy played out such as it had in the sim. She'd always been a quick healer. Adapting back to normal gravity was a process she relished because every other day she felt measurably stronger. Life's direction was obvious and its progress evident. She had never been so happy to be alive.
Which is why the panic attacks were so discomfiting.
Two psychiatrists assured her she was suffering from survivor syndrome and were prepared to prescribe oblong yellow pills, while a third offered to come to an alternative conclusion for a slightly higher fee. A fourth said she could have any colour or shape of pill she wanted if she let him palpate her breasts while she pretended to be asleep, so she left and called the police.
Nielsen was supportive. But she still cried in the shower and sometimes couldn't get out of bed. She was fifty percent sure she was developing either agoraphobia or claustrophobia. Spaces, people, events, light and darkness made her anxious. Headaches and bouts of inappropriate laughter. Cold sweats.
She went skydiving. She had a massage. She had a colonic, an affair, and a hypnotic dream cleansing. She changed her hair colour twice. She got drunk, then high. She went on vacation and bought a new car and surprised Nielsen with something kinky and even so she still felt increasingly under violent siege by the smallest aspects of life.
She tried to try suicide, but failed. She cried like a baby over it. Neilsen held her.
"I never arrived," she mumbled into his chest. "Some part of me never came home."
But Pistil figured it out, and everything got better.
Nielsen never suspected anything untoward before she got better but when she did he suffered a certain paranoia. When things became peachy keen he worried that his wife had fallen out of love with him, so he hired a private investigator to follow her around. It turned out that the odd spots in her calendar were filled spending time down in the dingiest simulation brothels of Huo Hsing.
Nielsen didn't know what to think. One day he confronted Pistil about her secret habit.
She confessed quickly: "I'm addicted to a sim. But I need it. It's a lynchpin for my life."
"What do you simulate?"
She closed her eyes. She almost smiled. How could he not know?
"The potato. The asteroid. The house I built from wreckage. I keep my eyes off the stars so I don't get dizzy. I tend my gardens, I cycle my urine, I make sure everything is okay."
Nielsen was concerned she was reinforcing the notion that she'd never properly arrived home. But she shook her head.
"But that's not how I feel anymore. I was wrong about that. It's not that I never arrived home, it's that rescue never came for me."
"But that's not true either, Pistil."
"It's the delusion I prefer."
What Nielsen couldn't understand was that exile never ends. Two thousand days in and this was more than a suspicion for Pistil. Once she had taken active responsibility for her sanity she found there was no way to stop. The delusion, perhaps, was the one held by the unmarooned: that they were at rest, that survival was likely, that affairs made some sense.
Once she'd seen the unreality of that she found she couldn't unsee it again.
Nielsen and Pistil learned to live with it. Soon the babies came, similar to the sim but sweetly different. Nielsen only occasionally had to explain away his wife's periodic absences as the required ministrations of a spiritual duty too sacred to profane by explanation. People didn't pry when he said that. They nodded solemnly and touched their palms together or bowed. Reverence was old fashioned and it made people feel cool to pretend to be in touch.
Though she remained marooned forever, Pistil's life bloomed as it ought. She went mad but she bent her madness over her knee and spanked it until it behaved.